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Summer Thermals, Heads of Steam

THE Democrats caught the first political updraft of the summer. Will the Republicans catch a second?

The Democratic convention last week was amiable. Party Chairman Ron Brown presided with energy and grace. The Rev. Jesse Jackson came around to endorsing the ticket; his lukewarm endorsement, given his unwelcome among many Jewish voters, might have been endorsement enough. Even Gov. Jerry Brown was allowed to be his iconoclastic self and to speak; here a lack of endorsement reflected more on the former California governor than on Clinton. California is a state Clinton thinks he can win: Why squabble with

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The party platform - pro-economic growth, pro-education reform, pro-choice on abortion - was accepted without rancor.

The convention site was New York City. This may have appeared a liability, lying in the "liberal" north; but New York is also the Eastern capital of the working-class industrial crescent, which stretches through the Great Lakes and Ohio River valley to the industrial cities of the Middle West. And the main geographical corrective, if any were needed, was in the ticket itself: two young professional politicians from the South, educated in the North - one from Yale Law, Arkansan Bill Clinton; the other fro m Harvard College, Tennessean Al Gore.

The simple fact of a convention ably managed helps a national party. But other factors helped lift the Clinton-Gore ticket to a 20-plus point lead over George Bush and Dan Quayle: Clinton's refusal to collapse under the media's pounding on draft and marital issues, his choice of the popular Gore as a running mate, the collapse of Ross Perot's independent candidacy, and the gathering currency of the theme called "change."

Change is often better explained after it happens. It can mean no more than that somebody's gone. Youth may be no advantage. Reagan was no spring chicken when he defeated Carter in 1980. Many Perot supporters were seniors who wanted better government performance, not programmatic change.

Change has more to do with values than with age.

The American public prefers a central course of government action. It will tolerate radical corrections of public policy, sometimes only after bitter fights. The civil rights corrections of the 1960s, championed by Lyndon Johnson, were a case in point. The Supreme Court had already shown the way in 1954 with its school desegregation ruling. Women's rights also have been sharply argued, with the Supreme Court again setting the marker with its abortion decision of 1973. The abortion issue still troubles ma ny Americans, but the larger cluster of issues centered on women's rights constantly gains standing. The spouses on the Democratic ticket are an important part of that party's 1992 message: Tipper Gore is conservative on family values, Hillary Clinton outspoken on a woman's intellectual role; they reflect an era in which a woman's life can be said to be her own and yet fully related to her family and its identity.

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George Bush, if the past is any guide, will soon go into high gear as a campaigner. Bush has great energy, but he is reactive. His best chance for accomplishment is a Middle East peace settlement. The freeze just announced on Israeli settlements could lead to progress. Israel must know that a troubled Bush campaign could provide useful leverage. Clinton's chances are not yet strong enough to bet on.

The Bush administration need not rush. The Republican convention, set for Aug. 17-20 in Houston, will produce its own thermal. If Bush calls on longtime friend James Baker to join the White House in a new role as policy/campaign czar, as some suggest, this would be an admission of grave weakness on the president's part and a slap at Vice President Quayle.

Bush's problem isn't Quayle, nor that Bush would turn 70 halfway through a second term. His problem is the stalled economy and the lack of a plan - any plan - to revive it.

Reagan won in 1980 in spite of, not because of, his political philosophy. The public decided Carter couldn't carry the country another round so they voted for the other guy, who came with a fresh head of steam.

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